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  • A Big Step for Boeing Satellites
    Posted by Michael Mecham 8:29 PM on Feb 03, 2012

    It may seem a stretch to look for similarities between a C-17 or 737 assembly line and a satellite factory. The atmosphere in the two places is so different—literally. Airplane hangar doors are opened when it gets hot and machinists wear T-shirts and jeans. A satellite factory’s temperatures are carefully controlled and particulate contamination is a big deal, so assemblers wear hair nets and “bunny suits” over their street clothes.

    Nonetheless, Boeing’s drive to gain the efficiencies of lean manufacturing has been part of the strategy at its Space & Intelligence Systems (S&IS) factory in El Segundo, Calif., since the mid-2000s, when Howard Chambers brought over production secrets that won quality awards for the C-17 program. (Chambers, who recently retired, was Boeing’s manufacturing guru and later stepped in to help the 787 program.)

    While not as dramatic as a line of 737s, Boeing’s satellite factory is applying the same pulsed production techniques.Credit: BOEING

    While lean principles can be applied to any manufacturing operation, they pay off best in repeatable processes. This is a tall order for satellite makers since so many of their products are custom-ordered. In El Segundo, the U.S. Air Force’s GPS Block IIF program provided an opening for pulsed production because 12 identical spacecraft are to be built as part of a $1.35 billion contract.

    “Similar to an aircraft assembly line, the GPS IIF pulse line efficiently moves a satellite from one designated work area to the next at fixed rates,” says GPS program director Jan Heide. The process uses 13 distinct manufacturing post positions.

    The first two spacecraft went through detailed program and design reviews to ensure that the Air Force was satisfied with what it was getting, so manufacturing operations did not really pulse. The factory needs a minimum of four spacecraft for that. The first two—GPS IIF-1 and IIF-2—were launched in May 2010 and July 2011, respectively; since then, the next two completed their acceptance testing and are in storage, awaiting launch on the Air Force’s say-so.

    Now the pulse line is fully working, with the next four GPS IIFs under construction.

    “Using this pulse-line approach, we are able to build up to six satellites per year,” says Vice President Craig Cooning, general manager of S&IS and Chambers’s successor.

    While the IIF program is Boeing’s most leveraged pulse-line effort, S&IS’s reliance on its 702 platform for so many other programs, including USAF’s Wideband Global Satcom, allows manufacturing to pulse at the system and component level, says WGS program director Mark Spiwak. The result is commercial and military satellites being built alongside each other, “leveraging common parts and process throughout the entire build process.”

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